On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Remembering a Great “Jew of Culture” *

July 1 marks the tenth yahrzeit of my teacher, Philip Rieff, one of the most important sociological theorists of his generation. This is the 50th year since the publication of his book The Triumph of the Therapeutic, which gave the world a name for—and theory of—contemporary culture: “therapeutic.” It is a word that from this vantage point seems a prescient account of our country and its election campaign in 2016. I will never forget Philip Rieff, and hope that America will remember the lessons that he tried relentlessly to teach.

Rieff was above all else a teacher. I became his student during my senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, in a seminar that (if memory serves) began at 4:00 p.m. each Monday and ended whenever Rieff said it did. The reading that semester consisted entirely of a bare handful of paragraphs in Max Weber’s credo essay, “Science [or Scholarship] as a Vocation” (1918). The going was slow—we read line by line—and Rieff had a rule that students could not use words we were not prepared to define.

One day I remember someone made the mistake of using the word “institution.” We stayed quite late that evening. I did not mind. Rieff had entranced me with his basso profundo voice, precise diction, studied formality, and impeccable three-piece suits. His lectures were typically as brilliant as his masterpiece, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959). I felt at home in his classroom, I think, because his method of reading brought to mind Hebrew school classes where we read the Torah, word by word, with Rashi’s commentary.

I stayed in touch with Rieff through graduate school, and when I assumed my first position as a “fellow teacher”—the title of a classic Rieff essay from 1972—I regularly took the train from New York to Philadelphia to see my parents and study with Rieff. He tutored me in Weber, Nietzsche, and Freud, the lessons always interspersed with good meals, good wine, and conversation that went back and forth from texts to what Rieff called “text analogues”—events in the news or recent cultural developments that illumined or illustrated the texts. I vividly remember discussions about politics, universities, art, literature, Israel, and Judaism. On several occasions after my mother’s death I took my father along, and had the pleasure of watching him and my teacher exchange jokes. Rieff’s demeanor was normally stern. He loved to depart from it in uproarious laughter.

It’s no surprise that a scholar of Freud should enjoy a good joke, or even a bad one; Rieff’s analysis of culture, like Freud’s, paid careful attention to the elements of daily life in which personal and societal character stand revealed. The central problem of our time, he believed, was that our culture had lost its bearings, ceasing to provide the norms and behavior required to nurture ethical selves and give just order to society. Distinctions between Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, Truth and Lies, had given way to relativism and deconstruction. What mattered in public and private life, much of the time, was what Rieff called therapy: feeling good, living comfortably, getting along. One did not want to judge others, lest we be judged in return. The worst we might say of a person’s behavior is that it was “inappropriate.” Triumph of the Therapeutic argued that the loss of faith in a Commanding God, loss of confidence that justice could ever be achieved in this world (or that we could ever agree on what justice meant), and loss of hope in reward or punishment in a world to come, had led modern individuals and our societies to settle for lesser salvations. We too often aim at mere fulfillment of pleasures and desires, some noble, some not. Our culture, Rieff wrote, proclaims that “the therapy of all therapies, the secret of all secrets. . . is not to attach oneself exclusively or too passionately to any one particular meaning, or object.” We “are now committed, culturally as well as economically, to the gospel of self-fulfillment” (Triumph, 59, 252).

Rieff’s ideal character type—the one he himself tried to live up to and describe, despite failings in both departments; the polar opposite of the “therapeutic” who disdains fixed norms and rejects hierarchies of High and Low—was the “Jew of Culture.” That person did not have to be a Jew, but he or she did have to follow the example of the Ten Commandments in saying “no” to lower urges, and saying “yes” to just authority. Rieff had utmost respect for personal courage, ethical striving, care for the poor, devotion to God, and the discipline required to produce great art, in whatever culture these are found. The building blocks of culture were universal, in his view—all the more reason to bemoan the fact that “Jews of culture” everywhere were under siege.

The evidence for that claim, which of course could never be demonstrated empirically, seemed to Rieff to be all around us. Rieff’s most frequent “text analogue” was the daily newspaper, rife with accounts of corrupt powers, transgressive behavior, and the tearing down of any and all authority. My teacher was firmly conservative in his orientation. Like Hobbes, he valued order above freedom when forced to choose between them. But he was no advocate for unthinking obedience to the powers that be, and understood that culture (any culture) survives only when its tenets are challenged and its practices altered from within in response to changing circumstances. Rieff was certainly no apologist for the American status quo. (I remember him telling me proudly that in the 1968 presidential election he had voted for the African-American comedian and civil rights leader Dick Gregory.) But he was unrelenting in his criticism of Freud for explaining away much of humanity’s highest achievement in terms of our lowest desires. By the same token, he taught me to understand why we so often see human beings—like the murderers of ISIS—justifying the very lowest deeds of which a person is capable in terms of the highest authority a person can conceive: God.

Rieff was never surprised when he saw transgressive behavior move from the realm of art or humor— where it belongs, in his view—to that of life, where it is destructive of right order. I know how he would have reacted to a candidate for president bragging about the size of his sexual organ and his adulteries from the stage of a campaign debate. The vulgarity itself was a challenge to authority, a loosening of the restraints that hold society together. The same was true of winking at the violence of one’s supporters, or mocking immigrants and the disabled. Power unrestrained by submission to the Right and the Good, bullying of the weak, was every bit as much a danger as rioting and orgy. Rieff knew the Bible inside out, and alluded to it frequently. Respect for the poor and the stranger was to him no laughing matter. When a culture succumbs to its lower urges, thereby becoming what Rieff called an anti-culture, one has to resist.

“We mere teachers, Jews of culture, influential and eternally powerless, have no choice except to think defensively: how to keep ourselves from being overwhelmed.” (Fellow Teachers, 126) One often feels overwhelmed, these days. Jews faithful to our people and our tradition may feel especially so, given events in America and Israel. Rieff’s analysis and example offer his fellow teachers understanding, guidance, and the comfort of companionship. I loved him for that, in all his “human, all too human” imperfections (a phrase, and a condition, that I learned from Nietzsche through Rieff’s teaching). May the therapeutic in each of us get the help we need from one another to resist, to rise up against base urges, and to serve the Good and the True.

*For more on this concept and on Rieff’s complicated relationship to Judaism, see Philip Rieff, The Jew of Culture: Freud, Moses and Modernity, edited by Arnold M. Eisen and Gideon Lewis-Kraus (2008).

Teaching The Torah of Conservative Judaism

The following address was given at the 2016 Rabbinical Assembly convention.

Let me begin by saying that for me it is an honor beyond words to address my colleagues in the RA once more as chancellor of JTS. Working with you over the years; visiting the institutions that you lead; teaching and learning with you each January at RTI; benefitting from the excellent mentoring that you provide year after year to JTS students; getting the benefit of your wisdom, experience, and friendship in frank conversation on issues we face in our community and at JTS; partnering with RA leadership on these issues, publicly and behind the scenes; hearing the Jews you work with sing your praises—which does happen more than you might realize—all of that and more fills me with pride.

At a deep, personal level, you provide me with the pleasure of companionship, as together we walk a path in Torah that is not as well-travelled these days as we might like, if it ever was, but which—I believe, as you do—is of great and enduring importance for the future of our community and to the vitality of Torah. JTS would not be investing in the campus construction that has forced us to meet at Park Avenue Synagogue instead of 3080 Broadway if we were not confident in the future of our institution and in the kind of Judaism that inspires us. For reasons I shall explain in a moment, I believe that future is bright.

The personal meaning I have in walking our distinctive path in Torah is greater still because of the close connection to Conservative Jewish leaders who preceded us. For me, of course, that means especially the men and women who walked the halls of JTS and paced the dalet amot of the Chancellor’s Office. This year, I’ve spent a lot of time in virtual conversation with Gerson Cohen. Many in this room, of course, knew him well. I spoke to Cohen at length only once: about 30 years ago, when he offered me a position on the JTS faculty. But I’ve been reading him a lot lately, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “Blessing of Assimilation” address. In the course of that reading I was particularly struck by an essay called, “Modern Jewish Scholarship and the Continuity of Jewish Faith,” which Cohen delivered at an RA Yom Iyyun in 1981. Several passages in it say a lot about the Torah that is distinctive to the kind of Judaism that you and I teach and try to live.

The first occurs in the opening paragraph of the talk, right after Cohen asserts that “critical scholarship and traditional faith and practice are the pillars upon which Conservative Judaism rests.” He then says the following: “If learning and scholarship do not affect our religious faith and behavior, we are simply engaging in a kind of antiquarian exegesis. If critical learning does not have an effect on our theology, on our experience of God, we have to ask ourselves why we are engaging in it with such tenacity.”

Exactly. To me, “Conservative Torah” as you and I teach i—whether our Torah she bichtav, found in the set of texts from Frankel to the present that I teach in my seminar on Conservative Judaism at JTS—or Torah she b’al peh, transmitted and embodied in countless drashot, modes of practice, and styles of discourse, as well as in distinctive sensibility, emotional valence, and musical traditions—is permeated by our desire to bring together what we know about our history, our texts, and the history of our texts, with what we know about our world and from our world.

We seek wholeness, we Conservative Jews; we want the two parts of levaveinu, minds and hearts, to be in sync as much as humanly possible, and to be in sync too with our souls and our strivings; we want to serve God as best we can in this world, in shul and out, in our homes and on the way. We want to be God’s partners in making the world more just and compassionate. And we know, oh do we know, how hard that is. The work requires serious Talmud Torah, in the expanded definitions of learning and of Torah that have always been a distinctive feature of our Conservative way.

Citing etymological evidence from the Akkadian, Cohen argued that the passage from Proverbs that serves as his key text—“bekhol derakhekha da’ehu” (Proverbs 3:6)—means “that we must experience God in every ramification of our lives.” Lada’at means to know something [or someone] “ethically, sexually, physically, intellectually.” We should make it the central principle of our lives, Cohen said, “to experience the presence and the Word of God in every area of our being.” Only so “will we be able to overcome the fragmentation that threatens to overwhelm us.” And because the point is to live God’s Torah in the real world, which is rapidly changing, “one thing is certain: we cannot allow ourselves to be rigidly confined by the authority of earlier ages.”

Several implications follow directly, in my view, for the teaching of our Torah. One is that contemporary Jewish ethics, both personal ethics and social ethics, must be front and center when we Conservative Jews teach Torah and seek to live Torah. My veneration for Abraham Joshua Heschel stemmed initially from the fact—and photograph—of his march beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, and from his remarkable integration of great learning and piety with courageous social/political activism. That is true for many of my generation, and remains the case today.

I believe that Gerson Cohen would have strongly approved of JTS’s new degree program and adult learning initiative in the field of ethics. Indeed, it seems to me that in 2016 we cannot but recognize that humanity faces a global ethical challenge never before encountered: all the children of Noah may soon be unable to “live upon ha-aretz la-vetach,” in such a way that “the land yields its fruit and we can eat our fill,” as Parashat Behar puts it (Lev. 25:28-19). Leviticus is in many ways the most intimate of the Torah’s five books. It meets us frail, mortal human beings where we live, in our skins and with our families, in private spaces of home and tabernacle. But in this passage the Torah instructs us as a society, as a species, that divine blessings of rain and sun will surely turn to curses if we do not do our part in stewarding God’s earth properly.

The curses we will soon read in Parashat Behukotai bear time-sensitive significance as never before. Massive disruptions of rain and fertility are happening before our eyes, millions of people are already without food and shelter as a consequence, human dignity suffers greatly every day—all this the result not of divine punishment (at least not visibly so) but from human action and inaction. Ancient Israelites were promised a second chance by God, once the Land has observed the Sabbaths it had been denied by non-observance of sabbatical laws. The scientists hold out no such hope for us.

Conservative Torah, echoing Moses’s Torah, must have a lot to say on this point now and in coming years. We can’t allow the universality of the problem to dissuade us from raising a distinctive Jewish voice of alarm and address, any more than we can permit the particularity of our love and concern for Israel to silence our defense of its legitimacy or our aspiration that it live up to the promises of its Declaration of Independence and the prayers of countless generations.

In order for Conservative Torah on this or anything else to be heard in 2016, or to deserve to be heard, two other aspects of bekhol derakhekha da’ehu seem to me essential.

One is the emphasis upon experience. Conservative Judaism, with strong input from JTS, has never lacked intellectual heft. Its ideas, its emphasis upon learning, its devotion to intellectual achievement and intellectual integrity, have been of incalculable importance to many of us over the years. They are obviously important to me. I’d venture to say that Benjamin Sommers’s book, Revelation and Authority, published last year, will take its place on the shelf of key texts that define Conservative Torah and fortify our conviction as Conservative Jews. I trust that books and ideas will never cease to play a central role in our kind of Judaism.

Even so: when I look back upon my life—upon my life as a Jewish human being, upon my life as a Conservative Jew—it is not the intellectual piece that seems most salient. Experience counts for more. Reflect with me now upon your own lives and I bet the same will be true for you.

I’m thinking of the wedding made for my wife and me by Minyan M’at in 1982; the day, like the congregation that danced us to and from the huppah, was a creation of havurah Judaism that was in turn a direct outgrowth of Conservative Judaism and could not have existed without it.

The single greatest religious experience of my life without a doubt was watching my daughter come into the world at Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus. I remember dancing around the room with her in my arms, singing “Baby, baby I hear a symphony,” and saying over and over again, “Thank God, thank God.” I had reviewed some reproductive biology, and accepted it as scientific fact; I also knew for a fact that my wife and I had not performed that miracle alone. God was in that place, ve-anokni kein yada’ti (“I, I did know it”). Conservative Judaism had freed us for that synthesis of faith and science, undergirded it with reason, and helped me to translate it at that moment from thought to primal emotion.

I know from the survey data that I am typical in the fact that so much of the deepest meaning in my life is bound up in my family. Sovereign selves melt in gratitude at ritual events with children, grandchildren, or extended family. In my case the memories that pack the most emotional punch, even now, include my daughter’s brit bat in Jerusalem and my son’s brit in Palo Alto; blessing our kids at the Shabbat dinner table, and watching my father cry every time he was present for that blessing; the way my wife and I learned from our communities to celebrate our kids’ bat and bar mitzvah, just as those communities helped us to find the strength—emotional and cognitive, to deal with our parents’ deaths.

Kaplan was not entirely wrong when he said that recital of the Shema is an occasion for experiencing the thrill of being a Jew. I certainly feel that thrill when the Torah is returned to the Ark each Shabbat morning to one of the soaring chants we use in Conservative shuls for Etz Hayim Hi. I know that Torah is my life, and it is satisfying to feel that, and to know that everyone around me is feeling it, too, each in his or her own way. The same is true when we dance at Simhat Torah or chant that final Avinu Malkeinu at Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur, or rise to sing Ha’tikva on Yom Ha’atzma’ut. The gifts of Community with a Capital C and Meaning with a Capital M are on vivid display on such occasions. The power of those two gifts acting in unison is deeply felt.

My point, familiar to every rabbi here, is that we dare not neglect this non-intellectual, affective, and highly personal aspect of the Jewish self: the one that forms the backdrop to most of Leviticus; the one so wrapped up for me (and not only me) in music. Conservative Torah needs to take its cue from Moses’s Torah in addressing this experiential dimension of the self, evident when Rebekka cries out to God during childbirth, or Esau cries out to Isaac with bitter weeping, “Bless me too, my father” (Gen 27:34), or Jacob, having run a from Laban and about to face Esau, says to God in one of his finest moments, “I am unworthy of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have done with Your servant” (Genesis 32:11). I am grateful to God for the chance to meet up with those pesukim and many others year after year. Heschel’s lyrical evocations of the soul’s yearnings stir me to the depths. Be’khol derakhe’kha da’ehu.

I believe, despite all the depressing statistics of Pew reports, that if Conservative clergy continue to share this sort of experience with others, Jews and non-Jews alike, drawing on all of who we are, many of those individuals and families will want to be part of our community of Torah. That reference to the survey data will not be my segue to defending our movement’s strength and prospects at length yet again. But I will say a few words on this subject. We all know, or should, that Conservative Jews have a lot going for us right now—and that we have a lot of work to do. Our numbers are not what they once were, and will likely continue to fall in coming years. But that is no reason for talk of decline, let alone demise. If you are among those driven to despair by the 2013 Pew Report on American Jewry, make sure you are familiar with the valuable context provided by Pew reports on American religion as a whole, as well as the altered view of the data that results from disaggregation of the “non-Orthodox” category. We’re indebted to Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer for that important work and to Alan Silverstein and others for bringing it to our colleagues’ attention.

My confidence in the future derives in large part from the quality of our people: proud Conservative Jews who in so many cases are leaders in their fields, and who do what they do in the world, whether professionally or as volunteers, because of the Judaism they have been taught in Conservative auspices. Our future is bright as well because of the kind of talent gathered in this room, and—perhaps most important—because of the excellence of the students, person for person, who have elected to spend their lives serving the Jewish people and our Torah. As of last week, I am happy to report, 19 new rabbinical students are signed up to join the JTS community this coming fall—chai plus one, a very good number for signifying vitality and growth.

I am not Pollyanna-ish, as you know, but I have no patience with reports that confuse numerical decline with imminent demise. The figure always cited for Conservative Judaism’s decline reflects self-identification: an answer to the survey question, “What kind of Jew are you?” If you look at membership percentages, however, Conservative Judaism comes in at 11 percent, compared to 9 percent for Orthodoxy and 14 percent for Reform. The number of the most active Conservative Jews has actually grown in recent years. Success stories in camps, schools, synagogues, and elsewhere abound. Our new Lev Shalem siddur is another case in point. Please: Let’s not lose respect for ourselves or our Jews.

Instead of talking more sociology, I’d like to conclude by stressing one final aspect of the bekhol derakhekha da’ehu theme articulate by Gerson Cohen: how the quest to experience God’s presence and Word in “every area of our being”—the sacred, the Transcendent, the Most High and Deep, the “ineffable” realm of the spirit—helps to overcome the “fragmentation that threatens to overwhelm us.”

Cohen had that right. I don’t know about you, but I know from experience what he means by fragmentation. I am familiar with the feeling of being overwhelmed. Life pulls us in so many directions. So much to do, so little time, so much suffering to bear with and ease, so many needs to meet, so many desires, noble and less so, so much anxiety for Israel, for America, for our families. I am intensely grateful for the sense of wholeness that Judaism provides. The words “every” and “all” mean a lot to me. We cannot experience this sense of wholeness if we repress the doubts and convictions of our 21st century minds, or if our minds are at odds with our hearts or with our souls. It is not possible to seek wholeness, let alone achieve it, if we are unaware that we have souls and that our souls are in need of cultivation—or if our ritual observance is out of sync with our ethical striving—or if my love of Motown or Cezanne, for example, cannot co-exist in synergy with my love of Carlebach niggunim and the Rambam.

The Torah calls on all the heart, all the mind, all the soul, all our effort to find happiness and fulfillment as part of a people and a faith larger than ourselves. The older I get, the more I am convinced that the possibility of you and I achieving any “be-kholness” in life is a function of God’s “ehad-ness.” The Shema connects the two for us, in plain sight, and has us recite the promise of that linkage—and its unbreakable connection to love—each morning and evening of our lives. At rare moments we get to experience it—and perhaps to figure out, thanks to such experience, what the words mean. This central element of Conservative Torah is one for which I am deeply grateful.

I love this Judaism of ours, and I cannot be pessimistic about its prospects, certainly not when I am here with you, surrounded by rabbis older and younger, women and men, gay and straight—our collective “be-kholness.” I cannot not believe our future is anything but bright, given all we have going for us.

Conservative Torah is alive and well because it is Torah that we live for and live by, drawing on age-old Jewish wisdom about the needed balance between that which must change, lest Torah fail to speak to dramatically changed circumstances, and that which must not change at any cost, lest we lose what is most precious in our tradition—and in the process lose ourselves. I hope that that in the weeks and months to come every member of the RA will take advantage of the increasing number of ways in which JTS can help you to locate that balance and bring this Torah to more and more Jews hungry for the community and meaning that is Torah’s gift to all who take hold of it.

Encountering History in Jerusalem

I write on the flight home from a four-day trip to Israel, trying to process from 32,000 feet the jumble of events I witnessed on the ground during these few days—all of them developments that may well impact Jewish history for many decades to come. The past is impossible to escape on the streets of Jerusalem; the future is seemingly up for grabs on a daily basis. The bustle of crowds and the screaming headlines are not just street noise but history hurtling forward.

Consider the decision at the beginning of the week to set aside a portion of the Western Wall for mixed prayer by men and women, as well as the congregation known as Women of the Wall. For the very first time, official and explicit government recognition has been afforded to Reform and Conservative Jews. The immediate outcry by Orthodox leaders and politicians provided eloquent testimony to the immensity of what non-Orthodox Jews had just achieved. So did the protests of Jews who were unhappy with the compromise because it left the part of the Wall known to Jews everywhere as “the Kotel” in the hands of Orthodox authorities who have denied women the right to pray there wearing tallit and tefillin, and prohibited any kind of public prayer that did not meet with their approval. I cannot but cheer the compromise, one that I did not believe could possibly happen during the present government, which holds only a one-vote majority in the Knesset that depends on ultra-Orthodox support. But it did happen. Many details still need to be worked out, and the process of implementation might yet be derailed, but the symbolism of what occurred, to my mind, could not be more profound.

What it means is that Jews who live abroad as well as who live in Israel, no matter their belief and practice, have a full share in the Land and State of Israel. The wall is universally held to be “the holiest site in the world” for Jews. If one can only approach that holy site on Orthodox terms; can only pray according to Orthodox rules; cannot open a Torah scroll without Orthodox permission; cannot as a woman wrap oneself in prayer shawl and phylacteries or lead prayer for a mixed congregation or raise one’s voice in petition to the Creator of the Universe—and if all these rules are enforced by Israeli police officers—then the message is loud and clear: this site belongs to us and not to you, as does the authentic form of Jewish tradition, and even—in a very real sense—that State.

Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin put the matter with stunning directness when he said that there was no reason to accommodate Reform and Conservative Jews—who were not only a tiny minority in Israel, but would not exist in two or three generations because of assimilation and intermarriage. The Prime Minister immediately dissociated himself from those comments, but Levin refused to retract them—knowing full well that he had centuries of Orthodox disdain for non-Orthodox Jews, and decades of Zionist confidence that the Diaspora would soon disappear.

Conservative Judaism, for its part—our part—has always invoked the authority of history in countering such claims maintained: there has never been only one interpretation of Judaism, never only one way to be Jewish, and—in our brand of Judaism at least—there has always been an emphasis on obligation to the entire Jewish people (even Haredim who won’t give us respect) and strong attachment to the Land and State of Israel. The realities of Israeli society and coalition politics have long denied non-Orthodox Jews an equal playing field in the contest for the minds and hearts of Israeli Jews, just as they have long denied Israelis the right to be converted, married, divorced or buried except by agreement of the (ultra Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate. That changed this week, in one crucial aspect, at one crucial intersection of your life and mine with history.

“It does not give us what we need,” one thoughtful Israeli said to me, “The Kotel, the place where Jews have prayed for centuries, remains in the hands of the Haredim.” “Yes,” I replied, “but centuries from now Jews will regard the place set aside by this week’s decision for non-Orthodox prayer as just as much a part of the Kotel as the other because Jews will have sanctified it by praying there. The stones have stood silent for a very long time, untouched by tears or petitions inserted in their cracks. That will soon change. Israel will change with it.”

Just how much such change is required, from the point of view of the Torah that Jews like me have learned and taught, was underlined by two other events of the week, fitting brackets for the decision about the wall. My arrival coincided with reverberations from the verbal attack by the right-wing Im Tirtzu group on prominent Israeli artists and writers such as Amos Oz and A. B. Yehosha as “plants” (or moles) and “traitors.” Minister of Culture Miri Regev demanded that any artist or arts organization receiving or applying for a government subsidy swear an oath of loyalty to the State and not impugn Israel or its symbols. The move was widely seen as part of a growing campaign by the right to silence its critics—a secular parallel to action by the rabbis with whom the right is politically allied.

That partnership was evident again at week’s end when the chief rabbis along with politicians of the right sought to overturn an army decision that weakened the power of the chief rabbinate’s educational arm in the Israeli Defense Forces. A friend of mine who has one son in the officer corps and another about to be drafted expressed concern – apparently growing inside the army as well as outside it – that rabbis in the military are abusing their special access to the minds and hearts of soldiers. By some accounts, more than half of the officers in the IDF are now Orthodox – a direct result, some say, of the pre-induction yeshivot that, under army auspices, promote the confluence of right-wing politics, Orthodox belief and observance, and military prowess.

I thought, as I reflected on this battle, of the new book by political philosopher Michael Walzer, The Paradox of Liberation. In Israel, as in India and Algeria, Walzer argues, nationalist movements that had achieved independence in part through the use of religious symbols, myths, and longings, have been overtaken several decades afterward by religious parties that deny legitimacy to secular authorities and have gained positions of power in the state. Will Israeli soldiers who pledge loyalty to their rabbis as well as their commanders follow the orders of the latter when the two come into conflict—as they surely will as some point? Or will they follow the rabbis, who not only wear an army uniform but speak in the name of God and Torah?

If only Israel were a peaceful place, these battles for the definition of a Jewish state could be fought through competing teachings, divergent rituals and prayer services, and multiple school systems. Instead they take place against a background that forces one to ask, every week and sometimes every day, not only how but whether Israel will someday come to live at peace with its neighbors. On my way from the airport to Jerusalem, my cab driver told me about the soldier who had been shot by terrorists earlier that day; my cousin Leo told me, as we drove to Mount Scopus for a discussion comparing Latin American and North American Jews, that we would make a giant detour because terrorists had just killed one soldier (a recent female recruit) and wounded two others at the Damascus Gate. The site is a short walk through the Arab Quarter from the Western Wall. “I don’t see an end to this anytime soon,” my cousin said, echoing a sentence I heard many times this week.

Such sobriety and pessimism are widespread these days, along with recognition that Israel represents a truly incredible chapter of Jewish history and that its problems, which are many, are more than matched by its achievements. No one I know is regretting their decision to join their personal fate to Israel’s destiny. The highlight of the week for me was a ceremony honoring four JTS alumni who moved to Israel many years ago and have made notable contributions to its character and its citizens. We conducted the evening in Hebrew, aware that the fact of Hebrew’s revival had transformed Jewish history and greatly altered all of us. Next year in Jerusalem, we hope to celebrate our alumni again.

Strengthening the Bonds Of Jewish Unity

JTS marked the hundredth yahrzeit of Solomon Schechter last week with a short service of commemoration at Minhah, a moving visit to Schechter’s grave at which I was joined by executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer Marc Gary and several recent JTS alumni, and a historic gathering of rabbis, educators, and leaders of all the major Jewish religious movements. I am proud JTS hosted this unprecedented conversation,  which included the heads of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and Mechon Hadar, as well as graduates and students of those institutions, Yeshiva University, and, of course, JTS. We came together to explore the contemporary relevance of one of Schechter’s most seminal ideas—Catholic Israel—his term for the “living body” of Jews, not limited to any denomination, viewpoint, or professional elite, who in each generation assume responsibility for maintaining Jewish tradition and passing it on, compelling and whole, to the next.

Schechter first articulated the idea of Catholic Israel in the 1890s, several years before he arrived at JTS, and drew upon it to shape the institution from the outset. He declared in his 1902 inaugural address that he wanted his Seminary to “avoid sectarianism.” JTS would not give preference to “any denomination or sector theological Richtung (direction). They are all welcome, each working out its salvation in its own fashion. Schechter did hold firmly to certain truths: “I declare, in all humility, but most emphatically, that I do know something.” True religion could not be a “jack-of-all-trades. . . its mission is just as much to teach the world that there are false gods and fallen ideals as to bring it nearer to the true one. It means to convert the world, not to convert itself.”

In the case of Judaism, that meant fidelity to the study and practice of Torah: “There is no other Jewish tradition but that taught by the Torah and confirmed by history and tradition, and sunk into the conscience of Catholic Israel.” His Seminary would teach historical Judaism “in its various manifestations.” As an eminent scholar of Judaism, Schechter recognized the immense (if not unlimited) diversity of its “manifestations” over the centuries. He therefore respected adherents of other forms of Judaism than his own, and—rather than working to put an end to such differences among Jews—sought to unite them under the banner of Catholic Israel. Schechter also saw the need for further variety and change if Judaism were to meet the challenges of his own day.

I would argue that the same need for change-inside-tradition and unity-in-variety holds today. Ours is likewise a time of rapid and unprecedented upheaval: today, too, no one mode of Jewish living has a monopoly on the wisdom, authenticity, or truth with which to navigate the new terrain. Not every belief or practice of every Jewish movement will prove acceptable to every other—JTS cleaves to a distinctive path or practice and belief—but the commonalties among us, borne out by the discussion at JTS last week, remain far greater than our differences. Our group added love for and loyalty to the State and people of Israel to Schechter’s list of those commonalties,  even as we continued to be divided on what it means to “stud[y] the Torah and live in accordance with its laws,”  as Schechter put it. We also disagreedon the question of whether traditional boundaries separating Jews from others can—or should be—set or enforced in our day.

Much of the debate was about “saying yes” as opposed to “saying no.” “What is the price of saying no to someone who wants to come in?” asked one rabbi. To which another countered:  “There comes a moment where we do stand for something. It should not be a surprise when the rabbi shows a religious commitment. . .We can only have a healthy religion when one addresses the costs of saying yes.” Added a third: “Identity is not just about how you feel, but about how your community responds to you.”

It was clear from our discussion that the three B’s of Jewish living—believing, behaving, and belonging—must all pass a bar of approval wielded by virtually every adult outside the Haredi world today to a degree that Schechter could never have imagined.The leaders trained by JTS must know how to attract such Jews with experiences of meaning and community at once grounded in the Jewish past and thoroughly engaged with the Jewish present. We also want them to be loyal to Torah—and, because of that loyalty, willing to adjust Torah to changing demands of the day. They need to be loyal to the Jewish people and Judaism–and, because of that loyalty—open to and respectful of human beings of other faiths and communities. They cannot do this if we say no to every innovation and cause—or always say yes.

Despite himself, Schechter ended up the founder of a movement.  He established the Rabbinical Assembly for JTS alumni and the United Synagogue for the congregations they served.  But even in his opening address to the latter organization, he added the words “or Orthodox, or Traditional,” every time he said the word, “Conservative.” And Schechter never abandoned his belief that Jews “stand now before a crisis” that mandated cooperation and mutual respect.

That holds for us too, I believe—and should impel the various movements to act jointly more than ever before. Our synagogues and schools could share facilities, staff,  and—wherever possible—students;  our Seminaries could, in addition, share faculties with one another as well as with neighboring institutions of higher learning. We should be building multipurpose campuses that house multiple Jewish organizations rather than only one; funders and foundations should provide incentives for such cooperation.

But, as Schechter firmly believed, such cooperation need not be merely instrumental. There is much substantive agreement that transcends movement boundaries, and Jews inside the circle of agreement that marks Catholic Israel can and should cooperate with those outside for the welfare of the Jewish people. Schechter’s endorsement of the Zionist movement—despite the militant secularism of some of its leaders—provides a notable example. I hope that members of last week’s gathering will soon exchange ideas on how to effect significant cooperation among us.

Let us, like Schechter, cleave faithfully to Torah and never cease “appreciating everything Jewish and falling in love with it.”

 

Dear High, Dear Central High

I walked the halls of my high school last week for the first time since I graduated 46 years ago. It was, no pun intended, a real high: not only for reasons of sentiment and the pleasures of nostalgia—the cafeteria exactly as I remembered it; the corridors and lockers the same except for fresh coats of paint; the English class with the blackboard where I knew it would be and the desks scattered in proper disorder—but because the students of today were every bit as motivated,  talented, and happy in  their learning as  I remembered my classmates were way back when. The Central High Alumni Association presented me with an award and will place a plaque including my picture on the alumni “Wall of Fame” along with seven other new inductees. But the greatest satisfaction of my visit was not in memory but observation. At a time of dwindling support for liberal arts and public schools alike, Central remains a model of what a public high school should be. There is a lot to be learned from its example—including lessons for JTS.

The mythology of the place has always given a mighty assist to its character. Founded in 1836, opened in 1838, entitled by its charter to award a BA in addition to a diploma, enrolling academically talented young men (and, since the late 1980s, young women), and providing them entrée to the civic and professional elites of Philadelphia, Central—to students and city alike—is more than just a school. It is a symbol: proof of what a diverse student body, elevated by first-rate teaching and facilities, and raised on the expectation of high achievement, can do in the world. All the new hall-of-famers in my cohort spoke in one way or another about these themes at the event last week: how we had come from neighborhood schools of middling quality and somewhat provincial family backgrounds, had not had direct and sustained encounter before Central with great books, ideas, and possibilities and owed much of our subsequent achievement to the experience at our alma mater. We received these gifts through the demands of wonderful teachers in classes filled with students from every neighborhood of the city, representing several religions and multiple ethnic backgrounds.

In my day, Central was a mix of Jews, Italians, and African-Americans, with a smattering of other White Protestants and Catholics. Many grew up in immigrant households. You know in principle before you get to a place like Central that intelligence and virtue are not limited to people of your own persuasion, but it is something else to experience that reality in science or history class, or on the ball field. Respect for others changes from something one should have because it is right to something that comes naturally when one is surrounded by people who elicit respect by virtue of who they are and what they accomplish. What is more, you experience with them the special kind of bond that comes from learning together. Sometimes the learning takes place side by side, with the added glue that results from shared trials (that physics exam no one could pass) and collective elation (we did it!). Sometimes it comes from what other members of the class teach you. That kid you barely knew but always kind of wanted to offers an insight into a poem or painting that stuns you with how true it is to your experience of the world. You can’t believe anyone else saw it that way too, least of all this person so different from you. One is grateful for that: grateful to the teacher whose assignment made it possible, to the artist who got it right, to that new friend you will be happy to see, if you get the chance, at an alumni event 46 years later. You are connected. You are not only wiser because of this school, but less alone in the world, more at home.

I spoke at the event about one teacher in particular: John J. Mulloy, who was not satisfied with existing textbooks on the intellectual history of the West and so spent many hours, day after day, typing up the texts he wanted us to read (I remember Coleridge and Burckhardt, Eliot and Nietzsche, and a Catholic historian named Christopher Dawson) onto a stencil and then running off multiple copies on a mimeograph machine. The smell of the ink is still vivid in my mind—and so is the sense of growth of my mind and heart in Mr. Mulloy’s class, as palpable as the inches added in those same years to my height. It mattered to me even then that my favorite teacher was a practicing Catholic and a cultural Conservative—not ways of being with which I was familiar.

Twice a week after Central (and again on Sundays), I walked up Olney Avenue to Broad Street and then down Tabor Road to the Hebrew High School program at Gratz College, where I studied with faculty that included my other favorite teacher, Rabbi Sam Lachs. The great books of two traditions encountered one another in me and complemented one another far more than they collided. The walk from Central to Gratz gave life and substance to the hyphen in my identity as American Jew. You are larger than your individual self, both teachers taught.  (Last week, in the archives, I found a column written by Mr. Mulloy in an edition of the Central newspaper for which I wrote as a senior deploring the fact that most Americans had not followed JFK’s urging, and still worked only for their own welfare rather than for that of their country). We are citizens of a country and a world that include far more than our own particular group. There are higher powers—or One Higher Power—at work. Neither Mulloy nor Lachs ever preached in class, and neither seemed to me to represent a simple faith, and perhaps because of that both stood for versions of Truth and Right to which I could give credence, in teenage years when credence does not come easily.

You can matter, this education taught me and everyone else, in the way that mattering really counts: doing good. I transmitted to the students at the dinner and those I met at lunch the next day a message about leadership that has been expressed to me by political and religious leaders over the years. The most important prerequisite of being a leader is not managerial ability, technical knowledge, smarts, or people skills, though all of those are required. More important still is personal integrity. How can people work with you, or follow you, if they do not know who you are and what you stand for? How can they walk ahead of you, as you want them to do if you are a true leader, and grow stronger by your side, unless they know that in so doing they advance along the path that you, too, walk, and on which you want them to walk?

Many JTS students benefit from teachers as devoted to their craft as Mr. Mulloy and as committed to their tradition (and radical in their approach) as Rabbi Lachs. Our students are not all of one mind, thank goodness, nor are our faculty. They learn as much from the presence of people who share their passion for Torah but disagree profoundly in how they live and interpret it, as they do from the texts themselves. They will one day soon lead communities that are rapidly changing, and—in order to lead successfully—will need the personal integrity, self-knowledge, and immersion in Jewish tradition that are more essential at a time like this than in periods when lives and institutions are relatively stable. Our leaders will need to respect the communities they help to guide in all their diversity of belief and practice.

It’s great to remember “those days gone by, the glorious days of old,” in the words of Central’s anthem. Better still, however, is to make sure that we use what we learned to enliven classrooms (and, for JTS, to strengthen synagogues, Federations, camps, and communities) now and in the future. A good high school, a good teacher, a good set of classmates, can make all the difference in an individual’s future—and our collective future.

 

Commentary Symposium: The Jewish Future

The impossibility of predicting the long-term Jewish future in America or anywhere else was highlighted for me recently by the announcement of a scholarly conference devoted to the question of whether the world’s food supply would still be adequate in 2030—a mere 15 years from now. Commentary’s questions implicitly assume, among other things, that solutions will have been found to global warming (or that the ecological disasters currently forecast prove false alarms); that China will not have supplanted America as the dominant economic and political power in the world (a development that would curtail the influence of American Jewry and threaten the security of Israel); that Islamic terrorism will have been eliminated or contained; and that Israel will have found a way to live peaceably with the Palestinians inside its borders, with Arab and Islamic neighbors, and with the diverse, contentious groups of Jews who comprise the majority of its citizenry. All these variables bear directly on the Jewish future. They greatly disturb one’s sleep in 2015 and make it difficult to dream about better days.

Continue reading my contribution to “Symposium: The Jewish Future” in Commentary.

Jerusalem and Zionism on Edge

Jerusalem was on edge this week, its Jews fearful of the next knifing or shooting that would come soon and without warning; its Arabs subject to added inspections and fearful of police and Jewish popular anger alike. Fewer people than usual were on the sidewalks; busses had fewer riders, with soldiers prominent among them. Security around the prime minister’s residence, located directly across the street from JTS’s Schocken Library, where our students in Israel meet for classes, was even more rigorous than usual. One friend told me his kids were afraid to go to school. Reassured by their parents, they went nonetheless. No one to whom I spoke had panicked; no one cowered at home, even if no one was taking needless chances. Cafes and restaurants had lots of patrons and had not posted guards at the door.  My friends agreed, as they prepared to mark the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, that this latest and worrisome chapter of the matsav might go on for some time and would not lead to anything positive.

I sensed the same mix of foreboding, resolve, and focus on tasks near at hand in the halls of the 37th Zionist Congress. That gathering of world Jewry is what drew me to visit Jerusalem this time, as a member of the Mercaz Olami delegation of Masorti-Conservative Jews. It felt good to be there, to stand with Israel and Israelis at a time when their sense of isolation is acute. Two Israeli friends told me how much my presence there meant to them. Shabbat really did seem like a taste of the world to come, its respite followed at once by news of more violence. Israel—despite all this—was a wonderful place to be. But calm, in Jerusalem, it was not.

The most meaningful part of my trip was sitting with JTS rabbinical students at Schocken, hearing about their experience in the program in Israel thus far and giving them a chance to air their feelings at being caught in the latest outbreak of violence. I told them of the steps JTS is taking to maximize both their safety and their sense of safety. They were understandably anxious, appreciative of JTS’ concern for their well-being, and quietly determined to face whatever challenges the situation presented, along with the rest of Israel. Our brief discussion of what could or should be done to improve the situation evinced a variety of views, as it has among Israelis in general.  The intimacy and honesty of that conversation brought home the toll that violence takes, but also the solidarity it fosters, the resolve it breeds among many to work harder still for a solution.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress drew worldwide attention for his claim about the role of the mufti of Jerusalem in inciting the “Final Solution.”  To me the Prime Minister seemed worn out, exhausted, hardened. I appreciated the burden of the immense responsibilities he bears and even so could not understand why he made no effort to rouse this audience with the thing most needed right now: vision, hope, and aspiration. His lecture on the “ten big lies” circulated by the Palestinian Authority drew only scattered and perfunctory applause. If offered neither hope nor vision. I found that depressing.

The plenary panel of which I was a member took the future of a Jewish and democratic State of Israel as a given, and asked whether—in 2015—there is still any point to Zionism. That movement is also somewhat on edge, and has been for some time. I explained in personal terms why I believe the bonds joining Judaism, Zionism, and the Jewish people remain inseverable. . . despite frequent attempts in many quarters to break them apart and widespread cynicism among Israelis that Zionism—as opposed to the State—serves any purpose. The full text of the speech I prepared is available on the JTS website.

For all my sobriety when it comes to Israel’s challenges and failings, I remain compelled by the Torah’s vision of a land given to the Children of Israel in order to build a society more just and compassionate than any that has ever previously existed, and in so doing be “a blessing to all the families of the earth.” Some Jews and Gentiles, I know, find such teachings an excuse for religious or ethnic chauvinism, or reason to reject both Judaism and Zionism out of hand. But I won’t give up on the notion that Israel remains a prominent vehicle of achieving the good that we Jews have stored up in us.  Zionism, to me, means the work done by the Jewish people the world over, together, as a people, to carry out that responsibility – work focused on but not limited to the project of building a secure, just, and democratic Jewish State in the Land of Israel.

For this purpose, thanks to this labor, Am Yisrael Chai—“the people of Israel lives” despite everything. I believe in all humility that such aspiration will ensure the continuing relevance of Zionism and would actually make the State more secure.

On the plane to Tel Aviv, I was greeted by a full page in Yediot featuring a picture of the Rebbe and his 1974 proclamation that “the Land of Israel is the most secure place in the world” because “the Holy One Blessed be He guards and protects every single person in Israel.” May it only be so. There is much work for you and me to do as well.

Out of the Depths

What I will most remember about the recent multireligious gathering with Pope Francis at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is the hush that awaited and greeted him. I don’t remember anyone giving a direction for silence. Certainly no one signaled the few who applauded when the Pope entered the room that applause at that moment, in that place, for that man, was not appropriate. The audience of clergy and laity representing the many religions of New York City had been sitting patiently for 10 to 15 minutes after milling around for more than an hour. The speakers had gone to their seats on stage; the government dignitaries had quietly taken their assigned places. We awaited the Pope in the room at the very lowest level of the museum, ground zero of Ground Zero as it were, and, finally, his entourage too made its way to the podium, exactly on schedule—and in total silence.

There were many words spoken in the next few minutes, of course. The carefully choreographed procession began with Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s welcome on behalf of New York City’s religious leaders who, he said, worked well together on fostering partnership and dialogue. Next came representatives of Judaism and Islam (Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove (RS ’99) and Imam Khalid Latif, respectively) and then Francis himself. The man of the hour spoke totally without fanfare, somberly and solemnly, clearly not interested in demonstrating rhetorical power or any other kind of power, for that matter, but only in summoning something from the depths of the place and the depths of those listening to him, that would at once remember, witness, and heal. “O God of love, compassion and healing. . .We ask you in your goodness to give eternal light and peace to all who died here. . .We ask you, in your compassion, to bring healing to those who, because of their presence here 14 years ago, continue to suffer from injuries and illness. . .God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world. . .Comfort and console us, strengthen us in hope. . .”

The Pope had apparently asked that this “witness to peace” be held at Ground Zero. I wondered if Psalm 130 was on his mind as he did so. “From the depths I call on you, Lord. Hear my voice. Let your ears be opened to the sounds of my pleading.” The words of the psalm rang in my ears as he spoke, as did—less than 48 hours since Yom Kippur—the Al Chet prayers “For the sin that we committed before you by doing X, and for the sin that we committed before you by not doing Y. . . For all these, Lord, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” So much responsibility could be apportioned among the political and religious leaders gathered in the room, I reflected, both for things said and done, wittingly or unwittingly, that gave sanction to intolerance or violence, and for things left unsaid or undone.

The man in white at the podium did not once raise his voice in anger, or chide the dignitaries arrayed in the first few rows for not accomplishing more in the way of justice and mercy, or give the slightest hint of judgment, either in his own name or in the name of God. I wondered if he had decided to speak his prayer in halting English, rather than in his native Spanish, in order to take on the weakness of the immigrant and of everyone else who lacks verbal facility—including the dead who, as the Bible says, must dwell forever in silence. The very last thing the pope wanted to do, it seemed, was shout. My guess was that he believes God too is not a shouter. I recalled the passage in I Kings (19:11-13) when God is revealed to the prophet Elijah. There is first a wind that seems to tear the very mountain apart, and God is not in the wind. Then there is an earthquake, and the Lord is not there either. The same holds true of the fire. Finally there is a “sound of thin silence.”When Elijah heard it, he covered his face. That is where God can be found.

The other moment of the day that I shall not soon forget had a similar quality. Following a second series of meditations on peace by representatives of the world’s religions, and immediately before the Pope’s second address—this one on the subject of peace, and given in Spanish, no less quietly or solemnly than the first—Cantor Azi Schwartz sang a beautiful, haunting El Male Rahamimin Hebrew, followed by a rhythmic Oseh Shalom Bimromav in which the Jews in the audience joined. This is a pope who clearly wants to reach out in friendship to all the world’s religions, as Second Vatican Council did 50 years ago in the Nostra Aetate declaration. He has extended an especially warm hand to Jews. The quotation from Francis about dialogue that appears on the inside cover of the booklet that was distributed during the occasion is taken from the book he wrote with his friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka. The Pope’s picture on the fifth page shows him from behind, his arm around the shoulder of a man wearing a kippah. And here was our friend Azi, slowly and deliberately asking God’s mercy for the 9/11 victims, calling their martyrdom a sanctification of God’s name, and then implicitly inviting the many Jews scattered throughout the room, as Jews are scattered throughout the world, to sing along as he introduced the Pope with a prayer—our prayer—for peace. Cardinal Dolan seemed to sing along.

“That was a moment,” I said to the Jewish woman next to me. I ascended to ground level a few moments later, chatting with a Catholic prelate from Massachusetts about what the gathering meant to him. He was proud of Francis, for good reason. “People are coming back to church because of this pope,” he said. “I’m glad,” I replied. So much violence on TV and on the streets. So much poverty and despair. So many problems not addressed, let alone solved. So much avoidance of those problems, and of people (or peoples) who see the world differently from ourselves. And so much speech, whether by politicians or talk show hosts or on the street, that cheapens and degrades us, making it harder and harder to be raised up from the depths toward hope as Pope Francis did during his speech.

If the representatives of the world’s religions who live here in New York City cannot manage dialogue and partnership, I doubt it can be achieved anywhere on earth—which is why we New Yorkers must achieve it here. I agree with Cardinal Dolan on that point wholeheartedly. And if Jews cannot lead the way on the effort of caring for the planet and for humanity at a moment when we have unparalleled visibility, resources, and influence, and have a good friend in the Vatican to boot, when can we take the lead? When will we? The onset of 5776 is an ideal time to start.

‘Who’s God?’

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My observance of Yom Kippur this year was greatly enriched by a recent New Yorker cartoon by Harry Bliss that provided useful entrée to the serious matters that occupied Jews for the long day of fasting and prayer.

It takes a minute to get the “God” joke: part of its appeal—“Who’s God?”—has never been an easy question for Jews to answer. Indeed, according to some Jewish thinkers, the question—as posed by theologians—is not even the right one to ask.

Today I shared my thoughts with the Huffington Post on which questions (and answers) we might consider—together.

Please join the conversation.

High Holiday Message from Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen

Forty years ago this fall, I moved into an apartment in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem and began participating in a program called Mishmar Ezrachi, or civil guard. The officials in charge instructed us on what to do if we sighted suspicious activity and trained us in the use of the old M-1 rifles with which we were supplied each time we went on patrol. My partner for guard duty was my upstairs neighbor Lilian, who was not only an excellent conversationalist but contributed the use of her bright red Volvo for some of our late-night tours of the neighborhood. It felt good to be working for the larger good of Israel so soon after my arrival and barely two years after the Yom Kippur War—though I confess I was unsure just how much of a difference our efforts actually made. I experienced great relief when each patrol passed uneventfully: the Volvo parked once more at the curb, the rifle safely stored, and the city’s slumber remaining undisturbed.

I know I am not the only one for whom a good night’s sleep does not come easily in 2015: not in Israel and not in America, not for Jews and not for others who care about the state of the world as we approach another Rosh Hashanah. The day is described by our liturgy—in the passage immediately following the blowing of the shofar—as the “the world’s birthday, the day when all its creatures are called to judgment.” This year, the call that I hear, the response for which we will be judged, has to do with stewardship of God’s creation.

Pope Francis invoked this theme eloquently in his recent encyclical on the threat climate change poses to global well-being. The power of his message, I think, lies in its call for dramatic change in the broad set of attitudes and behaviors that have led to the current crisis, and his confidence that such transformation is not only necessary but possible. The encyclical reads at many points like a commentary on the High Holidays call for thorough going teshuvah, in order that we—the “we” enlarged in this case to include “all creatures” and the planet we share—may continue to be written in the book of life. I want to dwell on four aspects of that call.

First, and most important, there is the need to discard belief that the world is ours to do with as we please, as if by right. Jewish morning prayers begin daily with thanks for a body and soul that are on loan and must not be abused; the Torah begins with creation stories that remind us, as Pope Francis put it, “that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen. 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air, and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” We owe the earth—and God—responsible stewardship of the gifts entrusted to us. Failure to provide it amounts to a sin “before God” for which the High Holy Day liturgy calls us to account.

Second, there is the insistence that we cannot separate care for the planet from care for the human beings who populate it. We’ve all met or heard about individuals who are great animal-lovers but are undisturbed by poverty and injustice. It is not uncommon to encounter people who defend the earth against despoilment but will not raise their voices to protest the degradation of human life. The Rabbis made it a rule long ago that Jews cannot ask for forgiveness from God if we have not sought—and won it from our fellow human beings. Our turn away from exploitation of the earth, if it is to be decisive and long-lasting, must be accompanied by a parallel turn away from exploitation of other human beings.

Third, our responsibilities also extend to future generations. The Jewish calendar decrees that, immediately before Rosh Hashanah each year, Jews read the Torah portion in which Moses declares that the covenant binding God and Israel is made “not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with you this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29:13–14). I find great personal meaning in these words. They assure me that the covenant includes me as much as it had included my ancestors and will include my descendants. I am part of a larger story; I walk a path that began long before I arrived in the world and will continue long after I am gone. And with that gift, too, comes responsibility: the need to apportion the earth’s resources wisely and justly among all who share it with us now and with those who will come after us.

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